Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The varieties of religious experience

William James wrote a book about it in the early 1900's. It might equally have been entitled, "The varieties of spiritual experience". Many people in the history of Man have had a spiritual or religious experience. In fact so many that, if I can recall this correctly, James concluded that about a quarter of all people in the UK at that time may have had a religious experience. Some may not have a religious context to place their experience which is why I use the terms "religious and spiritual" interchangeably. Also, some are reluctant to admit of any such experience. The world can be cruel to those who do not conform with its materialist understanding or view on things. Nevertheless, many have had religious experiences and continue to do so. In 1989, I became fascinated with everything "New Age". I even thought of myself as some sort of secular Buddhist. I dabbled in almost everything you can think of; Past life regression, Astrology, Tarot cards, Transcendental meditation, Stuart Wilde lectures etc etc. But all this began a year earlier, in 1988 when I attended a lunchtime seminar on relaxation in the city of London. To cut a long story short my first meditation led to an experience of being reborn.I actually recall this, not only in terms of sensation, but in visual terms of consciousness and passing through a birth canal. At the end of this tunnel was brilliant white light. I thought to myself "what is at the end of this light"? To my utter amazement the vision and sensation continued. My consciousness, or what I assume to be consciousness, showed me endless forests and green hills. I recall that no one was visable and that there was both complete silence and peace. My consciousness observed all this a few hundred feet from the ground. An inner voice told (one I have not heard before or since) that this was Eastern Europe 50,000 years ago.

Afterwards, I felt blissful. Although, alone in this particular experience. In fact I later realized that what seemed like forever was just a few minutes in real time. I believe I had had a religious/spiritual experience. Possibly a lack of faith in any particular religion at that time meant that it was without religious imagery. But no doubt about it, it was a spiritual experience. For some while after this I tried to make sense of the significance of "Eastern Europe 50,000 years ago". What did this mean? There seemed no rhyme or reason to it. Subsequently, though, I have gathered enough information to guess that the begining of human language may have evolved at around this time. I suspect that human consciousness at this time might have taken a leap via deus ex machina or, what many call, God.

Anyway, I digress. After a further few years I explored further and dabbled even more. Eventually, I began to have "out of body experiences". Every three or four months I would drift off into sleep expecting complete rest only to find that I was above myself looking down. Not so bad you might think. Perhaps even quite entertaining. Except that after a while a panic can set in after you realize that you might not be able to return from whence you came. Eventually, though, I did. Several times. But the experiences continued. And, became more sinister in content. Without going even deeper into this I decided I must do something about it. So, I picked up a Bible and prayed. I also gave up my managerial job in Government work and did a degree course in Theology. The "out of body experiences" vanished. And, just a few years ago, I became a Catholic.

I realize there are some, perhaps many, who will assume that this is a psychological condition and that no other explanation will do. Fine. I happen to think differently. Not everything is reductionist. We cannot explain all religious or spiritual experiences as psychological. I believe Man is a religious animal with a conscience and soul which requires expression. Indeed, to deny this fundamental expression of human nature will lead to mental illness. In our secular world think how much mental health issues seem to be increasing concern. And, why so many people in todays secular materialist world view find relief in recreational drugs. And, the increasing numbers of people who search for meaning in a world which appears to care little about anyone.

When I first read William James whilst taking my Theology degree all those years ago I never thought I would be recommending his book now. And, I never thought I would be writing this.

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